James Eagan Holmes walked back into Theater 9 at the Century 16 in Aurora, Colorado two years ago in a gas mask, assault vest, and groin and throat protectors armed with a 12-gauge Remington 870 shotgun, Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle, and tear gas grenades. It was the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s newest and final installment in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Audience members thought he was part of a publicity stunt, until he fired his shotgun at the ceiling, then directed it at the back rows of the audience. The most up-to-date figures account for 12 audience members killed and 70 injured, but staring at the death toll fails to relay the devastation. According to newspaper reports, police found Holmes standing by his car in the theater parking lot, claiming to be the Joker, and he’d dyed his hair a toxic shade of Cheeto- orange. We still don’t fully understand what compelled him to open fire in a sold-out movie theater, but his rampage is shocking for its capriciousness as well as its grim link to a pop culture phenomenon. While the shooting took place during The Dark Knight Rises, there’s no doubt that the film which held a psychic grip on Holmes was its predecessor, 2008’s The Dark Knight.
I was attending a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in the pungent broccoli mecca of Santa Maria, California, 1,156 miles west of Aurora, and I was inappropriately excited about it. Having just graduated college, TDKR was a convenient bookend to my higher education. Four years earlier, the summer before I left for school, I saw the midnight premier of The Dark Knight, and to say that I enjoyed it would be to disregard a significant aspect of my post-high school worldview, especially as it pertains to art and commerce. I’ve received plenty of eye-rolls for my near-frantic effusiveness for The Dark Knight in the past six years, but even as much else has changed, I’ve remained steadfast in my belief that TDK is an astute social critique whilst concurrently serving as one of the greatest escapist action movies ever. The battle between Batman and the Joker is a colossal, Miltonian morality play, set to a pulsating Hans Zimmer score in a hollow, metaphorical Gotham. There is an abstract tension throughout that raises it far above the level of comic book super-heroics, a Platonic cogitation that, with box-office profits totaling over a billion dollars, was a glimmer of hope that a film can indeed be both a commercial and artistic success.
At the risk of sounding like simply another mainstream sycophant, Nolan’s serious take on what is a fairly ludicrous world of costumed vigilantism transcended Bob Kane’s source material. The flitting, dead energy emanating from Heath Ledger’s Joker, who, since the release of TDK, has come to rest on the mantle within global film culture as a kind of tragic icon, is a bright star exploding rather than fading out. He traipses around Gotham caked in grotesque make-up, wandering into Savatore Maroni’s blue fluorescent hideout and Bruce Wayne’s penthouse cocktail party with equal parts nonchalance and menace, and throughout, it is unclear what exactly he wants from Gotham’s inhabitants or Batman in particular. Without a past to speak of, he’s a strange, anonymous terrorist who is seemingly willed into existence by Batman’s nobility. He starts to reveal himself when at the bedside of a freshly disfigured Harvey Dent, he explains:
“I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just DO things…I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”
The Joker’s speech limns a society requiring the purge of a pure anarchism- ruddy-faced and corrupt politicians, amoral Banks- and in that moment, the Joker is iconic, if not charismatic. He relishes in the destruction of system and order. On the one hand, he’s like precocious 14-year old listening to too much Rage Against the Machine and reading too much Catcher in the Rye; on the other, a radical political terrorist. It’s not hard to see where the Joker is coming from. When taken as an isolated gesture, his incineration of a gigantic mountain of cash towards the end of Act II is an act of radical political protest (it’s also perhaps the most unrealistic scene in the film). There’s a cathartic edge to his actions, and in that scene, he’s gone into a netherworld that is neither good nor evil- it’s freakish and absurd.
Where is Batman during most of the Joker’s killing spree? He’s relegated to playing catch-up. With no rhyme or reason to the Joker’s targets or motives, Batman is a troubled and quixotic do-gooder. It’s impossible to stop the Joker from blowing up Gotham Hospital or killing Rachel Dawes, or planting explosives on two passenger ferries and orchestrating a psychological experiment in fear and cynicism. If a villain’s motivation is to burgle a big diamond in a museum, or take over the world, as the League of Shadows aims to accomplish, Batman’s action steps from point A to point B are relatively clear: stop them from doing that thing. When the thing that Batman is stopping the Joker from accomplishing is unknown, Batman can’t do much of anything. Salvatore Maroni describes this when he tells a frustrated Batman that everyone is “wise to your act. You got rules. The Joker, he’s got no rules”. Our hero’s only option is to set up a complex surveillance system using sonar technology on every cell phone in Gotham, turning them into tethered waypoints, a prospect which his advisor Lucius Fox has serious moral qualms with. To stop the Joker’s terrorism, Batman must adopt extreme, invasive security measures.
Back to reality: Holmes had been stockpiling weapons for months, purchasing guns from Bass Pro Shops and other Colorado weapons-sellers and gearing up for a full-mounted assault. A PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Department at the University of Colorado, he had dropped out of school that June. He was “bright”, albeit heartrendingly awkward. All told, he was a white 24 year-old living in Aurora, Colorado, watching Batman movies, spending time on dating sites like OKCupid and AdultFriendFinder, and eating Subway sandwiches. He played Neverwinter Nights. He had a history of mental issues but there were no obvious or actionable red flags. Not much else is known about him, as his trial has yet to begin and there has been a gag order placed on any information relating to the case. Holmes seemingly appeared out of nowhere with a single, unprovoked goal.
No one could have predicted that Holmes planned to pervert his obsession with the Joker into such senseless carnage. Waking up to the news of the Aurora shooting the day after the film’s release was heartbreaking. Whatever sense of significance and moral weight that was to be gained from Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy had manifested into something much darker and more qualitatively evil than could be fathomed. Holmes’s assault proved, unimpeachable to the world, that “evil” continues to exist, regardless of how obfuscated and postmodern our moral barometer has become. Within the neatly crafted world of Gotham City, Batman has an omnipresence that allows him to arrive at any crime scene just in time to prevent serious loss of life. In Aurora, there was no superhero to counteract Holmes’ villainy.
Alfred Pennyworth could be describing James Eagan Holmes when, as Bruce Wayne struggles to understand and defeat the Joker, he tells him:
“…some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”